On Anthropology Field Schools

In Philippine anthropology departments, the start of April heralds the beginning of field schools. This is the time when professors drag their students away from the stuffy confines of the classroom and push them into the grime and sweat of fieldwork. For at least one month, students scrape  the earth until callouses grow on their palms and the tedious job of accessioning artifacts lulls them to sleep. The nights are spent on heated anthropological discussions up until the wee hours, sometimes over bottles of beer and karaoke blaring in the background.

One of the best training ground for the basics of archaeology is the Boljoon Archaeological Field School of Prof. Jobers Bersales of the University of San Carlos. In here, students are given a well-rounded training in archaeological excavation techniques and theory while also in a very scenic place. The site is right at the yard of a Spanish-era church with the entrance facing the blue seas of Cebu Strait. A fortress of  hills and cliffs with sparse vegetation envelops the area and, at its highest point, a sentry box made of coral rocks lies in decay. As the field school’s ex-bone guy and field hand, I had the chance to see the artifacts closely. We were able to recover interesting gold specimen, ceramics, precious stone beads, potteries, among other things. One of the exciting burial finds were two pieces of needle-shaped animal shell(?) with deliberate puncture holes at its base. This burial ornament was located on top of the pelvic region of a male individual. We also noticed  skull moulding and teeth filing practices in many of the buried individuals.

One of my memorable field school moments was in Joyce Well, New Mexico, located in that boot heel-shaped corner of this southwest state. We camped there for six weeks in the desert wilderness, amidst the purring of mountain lions and the scampering of roadrunners. Dr. William H. Walker, the field school director, armed us with machetes in case a wayward cat goes inside our tents (I think the purpose was mostly psychological than anything else. He could just have given us rosary beads against this very efficient ambush predators). Working on the Casas Grandes-type ball courts and pueblos, Walker and the team of field archaeologists helped students connect archaeological theory with the drudgery of digging. Walker would lie down flat on his belly next to your excavation pit and reveal the story of the scraped earth. He would talk endlessly about formation processes, the paleoenvironment of the site, the people’s religion, technology, sports, etc. that you could visualize the whole culture right before your eyes. Walker could also turn an ordinary trowel into a surgeon’s scalpel, deftly slicing the contours of the soil, exposing the artifact for removal and documentation.

Resting in the middle of a night trek

Another nice field memory was the 2006 primatological field school I co-organized (with Carla Escabi) in Bohol. Two primate species were observed: Philippine tarsiers (Tarsius syrichta) and Philippine macaques (Macaca fascicularis). The behavior, ecology and conservation of these species were the main topics for the training.  Although macaques are not endangered, we focused on them for animal identification exercises and the recording of animal behaviors because of their size.  We followed the format from other field schools, such as the La Suerte Biological Field Station in Costa Rica.

For the tarsiers, we  did daytime and nocturnal observational treks in the forests of Corella, Bohol. We found a pregnant female and a (possibly) mating couple seeking refuge under a clump of leaves in one of our day treks.  This couple was found no more than 6 inches from each other (which we found surprising since tarsiers are considered solitary in the literature).  Though they appear sluggish during daytime, tarsiers can leap from one branch to the next in a flash at night. They are so fast and small that it is impossible to follow them through the thicket. One time, we lay down underneath a tarsier sleeping site for hours until it woke up. At first, the primate stretched its long ankle bones and elongated its body as if it were doing a vertical push-up. Then the tarsier licked the tufts of hair at both sides of its shoulder and then the knees. Though we stayed so silent, its bat-like ears perked up like small satellite disks pointing in our direction. Rotating its head towards us, the tarsier stared for a moment with those moon-shaped eyes (by the way, each eye is bigger than its brain) and, in a split second, jumped three meters to the next branch.

mother and infant tarsier

We followed the tarsier for 30 minutes but its speed and agility were too much for non-vertical leapers like us.

What I like best about field schools is the learning opportunity students get in doing anthropology. While book knowledge is important, being on the field intensifies anthropological curiosity and interest. With all the discussions, work, and the general anthro-conducive atmosphere, students get to explore research questions and dream about what they could be in the future. I thus encourage everyone to head on to the nearest anthropology department and inquire about joining field schools.  The experience is really worth the time.


New Tarsier-like Fossil Primate Discovered

ResearchBlogging.orgPrimatologists revealed today the discovery of a tarsier-like fossil primate species found in the Eastern Pyrenees, Spain. According to Minwer-Barakat et al, most of the Pseudoloris pyrenaicus’ dentition was recovered, “including those teeth hardly known for other species of the genus, such as lower and upper incisors.”  The authors believed that based on its dental morphology, this “species shows intermediate features between Pseudoloris isabenae from Capella and Pseudoloris parvulus, present in different Spanish and French sites.”

This is the fifth Pseudoloris (Omomyidae, Primates) species described thus far, with P. parvulus as the most common species of this genera.  Primatologists suggests that this Middle Eocene primate were insectivores and survivors of a dramatic climate change around 34 million years ago.

Pseudolorises “were relatively independent from humid and densely forested habitats and, as secondary consumers, less susceptible to drastic changes in floral composition than the large folivorous adapids.” Köhler and Moyà-Solà posited that the lifestyle was a “preadaptation to endure the disappearance of tropical forests under the harder environmental conditions during the Lower Oligocene, which were less suitable for the much larger and more specialized contemporaneous primates.”

This fossil primate has also been important to the understanding of the evolution of smaller-bodied primates, such as the tarsiers. The similarity of the dental morphology to the tarsiers has been noted by the philosopher-scientist Teilhard de Chardin and by later primate taxonomists. Many are of the opinion that the tarsier/omomyid link is stronger than the tarsier/anthropoid link.

Minwer-Barakat R, Marigó J, & Moyà-Solà S (2010). A new species of Pseudoloris (Omomyidae, Primates) from the middle Eocene of Sant Jaume de Frontanyà (Eastern Pyrenees, Spain). American journal of physical anthropology PMID: 20310058

Köhler M, & Moyà-Solà S (1999). A finding of oligocene primates on the European continent. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 96 (25), 14664-7 PMID: 10588762

Simons, E. L. (2003). The fossil record of tarsier evolution Tarsiers: Past, Present, and Future, P. C. Wright, E. L. Simons and S. Gursky (eds.), pp.9–34. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick.

Sidney Mintz on Youtube

Best known for his work on Caribbean societies, Sidney Mintz uses the historical materialist approach to elucidate the dynamics of cultures in many of his writings. A case in point is his book, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, which links the slave-driven Caribbean sugar industry to the flow of global social and historical forces. For Mintz, the expansion of the world capitalist system does not automatically homogenize local cultures. He sees the dialectics between global forces and local responses as important, such as the impact of Western consumption patterns on local tastes, commodity production, environment, and the like.

Listen to one of the greatest anthropologist in our era as he reflects on his work, life, and the world.


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Earth Hour: Warming the Planet Through Facebook

Major urban cities went dim yesterday in support of World Wildlife Fund‘s Earth Hour. Started in 2007, the campaign is aimed at raising global consciousness on climate change issues and encourages everyone to reduce their carbon footprint. Although this activity has been much criticized as a “neo-Luddite waste of time“, I believe that the one-hour electricity shut down shows the kind of global solidarity needed in addressing climate change. The Huffington Post expresses this sentiment more clearly:

Earth Hour is not just about one hour. It’s about individual empowerment and generating an interest and a global voice on climate change action. It’s about uniting people, either virtually or in person, within their community, county, state, country and across borders. It’s about knowing there are millions of others wanting and asking for the same thing–a secure climate and future.

The Earth Hour allows us to reflect on the growing fossil fuel addiction that permeates contemporary society. Everything we do–e.g., from facebooking to cars to TV to game consoles to eating, etc.–contribute to an increased demand for fossil energy, and thus to more carbon emissions. Investigating on how much time we spent on social networking sites, The Nielsen Company revealed that global consumers spent more than “five and half hours on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter in December 2009, an 82% increase from the same time last year when users were spending just over three hours on social networking sites.”

Our fossil energy-dependent lifestyle however is all the more alarming given that scientists believe global oil production will peak by 2014, if it has not already. Experts suggest that “there is only about 1.2% more oil available each year, not enough to keep up with 1.5% annual demand growth.” In effect, we are  on a downward spiral: our demand increases while fossil fuel supply is almost nil.

The problem however is that most governments are not interested in veering energy consumption away from fossil fuels. Instead of weaning our technologies from traditional energy sources and searching for fuel alternatives, governments have opened up their territories to more extractive activities from multinational oil companies.

We blogged about this in the previous post. A similar case is also happening  in the Amazon. Finer and Orta-Martinez, presented that up to 72% of the Peruvian Amazon has been zoned for hydrocarbon activities in the past two years, leading to a second exploration boom in the area (in the 1970s, resistance to hydrocarbon exploration went deadly as the government and indigenous protesters clashed). Survival International reported that the world’s last uncontacted tribes and the rich biological diversity of the Peruvian Amazon are threatened by the detonation of thousands of seismic explosives.

It is quite ghastly to think that the innocent tending of our farms over at Farmville or the cooking of sumptuous dishes in Cafeworld might have contributed to the displacement of indigenous peoples, endangered many species, and raised Earth’s temperature. Reality however bites. The consequences of our cyberactivities are virtually real. Our fossil fuel addiction is eating this planet. Fast.

Offshore Oil and Gas Exploration in the Camotes Sea

Map of Service Contract

Below is a short video on a fishing community’s resistance against the resumption of NorAsian Energy’s offshore oil and gas exploration in the Camotes Sea. A news report indicates that the survey will “cover a total of 100 line kilometers in Borbon waters or at a distance of at least 2 kilometers from the town’s shoreline.” The approved service contract extends to neighboring areas as well (see map), particularly in Cebu, Leyte, and Bohol (current survey coverage is at 900-line kilometers).

Environmentalists and fisherfolk groups fear that the seismic survey will adversely impact the marine environment and the livelihood of coastal residents. According to the Central Visayas Fisherfolk Development Center, Inc. (FiDEC) and the People’s Coalition on Food Sovereignty:

seismic surveys involve the use of a ship with an airgun and hydrophones connected to a cable that is dragged underwater. The sonic boom from an airgun array is 255 decibels (dB), way over the human threshold of 80 dB and that of animals which is even lower. Seismic blasting is expected to damage the reproductive organs, burst air bladders, and cause physiological stress in marine organisms. It can also cause behavioral modifications and reduce or eliminate available habitat, alter fish distribution by tens of kilometers, and damage planktonic eggs and larvae.

FiDEC further added that the impact of the continued exploration activities will result in an estimated 20% cut in the domestic fish production in the Philippines for the next 10 to 20 years. In the 2007 Japan Petroleum Exploration Co., Ltd. (Japex) seismic survey, Vince Cinches of FiDEC reported a significant drop in fish catch, from the normal yield of six to 11 kilos to zero to 2.5 kilos after the survey.

The campaigners call for the cancellation of the service contracts. The Borbon Alliance of Fisherfolk Association (BAFA) urged the public to take heed because “the protection of the seas is not only an issue for coastal fishers.” Marine scientists regard this area as one of the least studied environments in the region. The Camotes Sea is also one of the places where cetaceans, whale sharks, and other large marine animals frequent.

WATCH THIS video below. It gives a nice background on the oil and gas exploration from the perspective of the coastal fishers.

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A Visit to the Market and Some Baybay Memories

One of the places I go whenever I am in a new place is the market, a holdover of sorts from my days as a street rat in Baybay, a small town tucked between the seas and the mountain. The market was and still is the nerve center of my town for various reasons. Money gets shuffled in exchange for products, gossip hops around like flies, friends meet for coffee or beer. Every market does have a persona. It can be downright in-your-face with aggressive vendors hawking their wares or as cozy as a walk on the beach. The transaction, though primarily economic, assumes a  personal and even filial tone, quite unlike the distance one experiences with vending machines and cash registers.

In the world of kids however, the marketplace is transformed into a whole different planet. The markets for us were sources of playthings–a pirate chest for everything good and wonderful. We collected empty cigarette packs as paper money, each brand or color denoting a corresponding  value. Kids back in the day would fold these neatly between the fingers, or press inside a book or a wallet, to make it crisp to the touch. How do we use it? As money, of course. There is nothing as real as those tobacco-stained papers and, to many, those were even more valuable than the real thing.  Indeed, they were very scarce that sometimes kids kept these in a treasure chest for the next cigarette money season.

Bottle caps. Yes, we scavenged for them too. We gathered these near eateries and, oftentimes, the owner collected the caps in a plastic cup and hands them out like candies. We used these tin caps in a game called taksi. A square box is drawn on the ground where the caps are put. About five meters away, a line is set where players throw another cap to dislodge the “bets” (i.e., the caps) out of the square box. The cap that one uses for throwing, the mano, is the most cherished item of the entire pile. Kids go to great lengths for the mano. They would polish them until the color is erased and left with a distinctive shine, like the silver of a knight’s sword. Sometimes, kids would sneak in the church and secretly dump the cap fast in holy water to imbue it with some preternatural power, somehow wishing that an angel would guide the mano and hit everything like crazy. And well, as a kid, I did include my mano in my evening prayers too.

I can go on and on with what children do with bottle caps. They can also be flattened like minute shields with two button holes at the center. In these holes a string is passed through them, sort of like a belt that turns the shield faster and faster when stretched. The edges of the shield have to be razor sharp so that it can cut through cleanly your opponent’s string. The game is really like a kitefight, the only difference is your “weapon” is right in front of your chest spinning.
In other markets, such as this one in La Plaza del Mercado, the same intimacy can still be felt despite being situated right at the heart of  Rio Piedras, a busy business and academic district. Relaxed and personalized, one can sense that the customers and the vendors have been transacting for years, if not for generations. There is this feeling of familiarity amidst the assortment of goods. Not only because the vendor knows the customer but also because the goods purchased resonate something deeply personal and cultural for the local residents.

Take for example the Botanica. Medicinal herbs, potions, and religious icons are  dispensed here for the believers. While statues of Catholic saints are on display, you can also find an eclectic assortment of religious artifacts on Buddhism, Vodou, Hinduism, Santeria, and New Age religions. According to Beloz and Chavez (2005):

Most Latin American (Latino) immigrants to the United States participate in the dominant health care system. […] Oftentimes, while utilizing this health care system, they continue to use their own culturally appropriate health care practices […] In curanderismo, santeria, and espiritismo, the practitioners assess the patient and, depending on diagnosis, prepares a healing remedy or a variety of healing remedies. A remedy is any combination of medicinal herbs, religious amulets, and/or other products used for the prevention, treatment, or palliation of folk and somatic illnesses. It is usually administered by the practitioner and may involve several sessions. In other cases, a curandero, espiritista, or santero will provide his/her client with a list of herbs and/or religious amulets needed for the remedy. The client will go to the botánica with this “shopping list,” purchase the product(s), and return to the healer for preparation and administration of the remedy. If the remedy is to be administered over a long period of time, he/she may be instructed to administer the remedy at home.

There is much syncretism in these botanicas. jrank.org has this to say:

Botánicas that serve customers of the Santería religion offer articles pertaining to ceremonial rituals. Santería traces its beginning to the Yoruba people of precolonial Nigeria and Benin who were brought as slaves to Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Brazil. During their settlement in the Caribbean, the practitioners of Santería incorporated Catholicism for survival, as the open expression of native religious practices was prohibited. In the Yoruba belief system, the traditional orishas (gods) were associated with a specific health condition. For example, the orish Chango is associated with violent death. In the New World, Chango became Saint Barbara, the patron saint of those who died violently. Santeria botánicas tend to carry items of the orish and the clothing worn by practitioners during services. Other ritual merchandise includes ceremonial masks, elekes (beaded necklaces), drums, and other traditional musical instruments.

Going to these stalls is equivalent to a crash course in cultural education.  The story of commodity exchange goes beyond the shuffling of cash. What I find elegant in visiting these places is the opportunity to observe spaces where capitalism gets indigenized, localized, and perhaps  even subverted: right at the heart of the money economy.


Gomez-Beloz A, & Chavez N (2001). The botánica as a culturally appropriate health care option for Latinos. Journal of alternative and complementary medicine (New York, N.Y.), 7 (5), 537-46 PMID: 11719946

Botánicas – Botánicas, yierberías, boticas, curanderismo, veladoras, milagros, curandero, orishas, elekes, Cultural Diversity in Health and Illness

Eulogy for a Hermit Crab by Pattiann Rogers

Hermit Crab in Manati

Eulogy for a Hermit Crab by Pattiann Rogers

You were consistently brave
On these surf-drenched rocks, in and out of their salty
Slough holes around which the entire expanse
Of the glinting grey sea and the single spotlight
Of the sun went spinning and spinning and spinning
In a tangle of blinding spume and spray
And pistol-shot collisions your whole life long.
You stayed. Even with the wet icy wind of the moon
Circling your silver case night after night after night
You were here.
And by the gritty curve of your claws,
By the soft, wormlike grip
Of your hinter body, by the unrelieved wonder
Of your black-pea eyes, by the unrelieved wonder
And swing and swing of your touching antennae,
You maintained your name meticulously, you kept
Your name intact exactly, day after day after day.
No one could say you were less than perfect
In the hermitage of your crabness.
Now, beside the racing, incomprehensible racket
Of the sea stretching its great girth forever
Back and forth between this direction and another,
Please let the words of this proper praise I speak
Become the identical and proper sound
Of my mourning.